There is a peculiar technique used by Nicholas (Owen Roe), the ruthless interrogator in this staging of Harold Pinter’s one-act play from 1984. He extends his little and big fingers from a closed fist and waves them in front of his prisoner’s face, dragging their eyes along with them. It’s the first gesture in a battle to assert domination over another soul.
Who knew the final part of the Gate’s Beckett Friel Pinter Festival would also be the theatre’s most overtly political work in some time? The warning signs of fascism are flashing yet again and Pinter’s study of authoritarianism couldn’t be better timed.
In a cold interrogation room (moss greens, set designer Francis O’Connor discovers throughout this festival, work both for Pinteresque facilities and Chekovian cafes), a security camera is a discreetly lit omnipresence (Sinéad McKenna’s lighting). Nicholas admits his prisoner Victor (Shadaan Felfeli) and quickly discovers his willingness to respond.
“Stand up,” says Nicholas. Victor stands up. “Sit down,” says Nicholas. Victor sits down. This interrogation has some of the same absurd methods of oppression as that in a Samuel Beckett play.
Roe knows that achieving a fully chilling effect requires playing Nicholas benignly. His line of questioning often seems harmless, except for the occasional enquiry about Victor’s family. Like a brilliant bogeyman, Roe peeps out from the friendly façade and reveals Nicholas’s true nature: a brutal monster.
Those glimpses are prompted, of course, by difficulties posed by his prisoner. Felfeli’s Victor responds plentifully through movement but verbally he remains almost silent. It’s clear in director Doug Hughes’s tense production that a person’s spirit is harder to break than their body.
It’s even a bit laboured during Nicholas’s interrogation of Victor’s wife, Gila (Rachel O’Byrne, surprisingly more defiant than fearful). The production leans a bit too heavily on the suggestion that the prisoners are actually rebels. Pinter’s play, however, is less effective as a portrayal of resistance than it is as an analysis of power.
“Are you a religious man?” mightn’t be an unexpected question in an interrogation. There’s a sinister line to draw, however, between that and Nicholas’s enquiry: “Are you beginning to love me?” Roe’s Nicholas, insistently affable, speaks as if to convince Victor to throw out his deity and accept him as a new subject to worship. The cult of personality rears its dangerous head.
Most importantly, perhaps, are its displays of stunning indifference. The greatest tragedy, albeit ambiguous, is that of Victor’s ten-year-old son Nicky (alternately played by Daniel Lynch and Pharell Evenor). “I wouldn’t worry about him,” assures Nicholas at the end of the Gate’s frightful production. “He was a little prick.”
One for the Road is on at the Gate Theatre in Dublin until 26th March 2017. Click here for more details.